Processor of the Year 2017: R&D at Pinnacle Foods

While still cost-conscious, Pinnacle Foods' recent acquisitions and R&D activity transition the company into healthy, more natural food products.

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

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Pinnacle Foods, Parsippany, N.J., has made significant strides to strengthen its product development and research performance. Purchasing Boulder Brands in 2016 gave it a new growth platform with Boulder's Udi's and Glutino gluten-free brands, as well as Evol "clean and convenient" frozen meals and Smart Balance and Earth Balance spreads.

Categories Brands RDPinnacle is taking a hybrid approach to its acquisition of Boulder Brands, keeping operations in Colorado and preserving the business’s unique attributes. Pinnacle is also combining its processes with many of Boulder’s to help the business unit grow faster and improve upon the business model. Pinnacle's large scale, for example, facilitates solving technical challenges at Boulder Brands and sourcing ingredients less expensively.

Developing new product lines in Pinnacle’s Birds Eye brand is also a significant part of the company’s growth plan. Growing the Birds Eye frozen vegetable brand is making the freezer case a buzz-worthy and healthy destination in supermarkets, says CEO Mark Clouse. The timing for "making vegetables ubiquitous," one of Pinnacle's main missions, couldn't be better. Convenience, clean labels and less waste are some of the reasons there's more interest in frozen foods lately, says marketing research firm Acosta ( Twenty-six percent of U.S. shoppers indicate they've been shopping for frozen foods more often over the past year, with that number at 43 percent among millennial shoppers.

So over the past two years, Pinnacle expanded the Birds Eye brand with new products concentrating on taste, convenience and value. Birds Eye Flavor Full Vegetables add such bold tastes as wasabi and buffalo. Protein Blends side dishes mix legumes, vegetables and whole grains. Signature Skillets are meals that include protein choices like prime rib stew, shrimp lo mein and maple teriyaki pork, ready in 15 minutes. Veggie Made Rice, a cauliflower-based side dish, mimics the mouthfeel of rice. And Veggie Made Pasta replaces starchy pasta with zucchini and lentils in a choice of flavorful sauces.

Organic vegetables, unique grains and Voila! Disney-themed family meals also are new platforms within the brand. "We make vegetables accessible, convenient, delicious – that’s how we're expanding consumption and attracting new, younger consumers to the category," says Mark Schiller, executive vice president and chief commercial officer. "We take starches people love and make them out of vegetables, without any trade-off in taste. The Veggie Made platform is one I'm most proud of."

R&D innovation opportunities

The R&D group operates from two main centers in the U.S.− one at headquarters in Parsippany, N.J., and one in Boulder, Colo. − each with its own testing lab. Three Innovation leads are based in Parsippany: Mark Izzo, vice president of product development; Jill Denison, vice president of innovation; and Steve Gunther, senior vice president of productivity and commercialization. Behroze Mistry, vice president of innovation and R&D, oversees the Boulder operation. Altogether, there are about 100 R&D employees in the U.S. and Canada.

"Our unified philosophy is to create value by solving real consumer problems and needs," Schiller explains. Tracking changing consumer lifestyles, the R&D group targets consumers with specialized eating approaches, be they gluten-free, plant-based or clean-label and convenient.

The team focuses on three things. The first is health and wellness. "Consumers want naturally healthy food that meets their specific lifestyles," he says, and Udi's, Glutino, Earth Balance and Gardein brands meet these demands. "Consumers also want cleaner labels, with ingredients they can find in their pantries." Evol plays a big role there, as does the renovation of core products to contain no high-fructose corn syrup, for example.

Second, consumers want delicious food. "We balance food science with culinary skills. That’s why our Veggie Made platform was created," Schiller says. Much of the development in the Birds Eye brand combines this pursuit of premium taste with health and wellness.

"We take food you love and make it healthier using veggies, yet still make it taste like the product it's replacing. Cauliflower rice that tastes like rice, for instance, and cauliflower mashers that taste like mashed potatoes. We provide a full serving of vegetables and fewer carbs, but there's no compromise on taste. Udi's is about to launch a gluten-free bread that tastes exactly like full-gluten bread, in the same size with the same texture."

And third, product development has to deliver products that are affordable and margin-accretive. "If we can’t make money at it, we won’t do it," Schiller relates. "Everything we launch is higher margin than the things we currently make, so we trade consumers up and have more profit to reinvest in marketing to drive awareness and trial of the new items. All stakeholders win when we do this. Consumers get better products. Customers get higher revenue per transaction. Pinnacle gets better sales and profits."

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